The Negative Side of Positive Expectations

Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
Apr 9, 2018

While it's generally a good thing to believe in people and have high expectations for their work, a recent psychological study has found that these same expectations can actually lead certain people to give up more easily, according to Quartz. The first part of the study looked at 325,000 men's tennis matches over the course of over four decades. It found that people are more likely to quit early after losing their first two-out-of-three set if they were higher-ranked players given high expectations from the crowd and from sports media than if they were a lower-ranked player with fewer expectations. What's more, the more lopsided the first loss, the more likely those higher-ranked players were to quit, which the researchers believe indicates embarrassment plays a role. 

Taking the idea out of the tennis court, the researchers then conducted a second study that presented 300 subjects with a 20-question trivia quiz. The subjects all received the same questions, but some were told they were middle school level difficulty while others were told it was for experts. Subjects were made aware that their performance would be publicly ranked against others, and were told the correct answer after each question so they could track their performance. Across both groups, the average success rate was about 23 percent. 

Afterwards, all subjects were told they could choose to answer more questions on the current topic, or switch to another topic, though switching would cost them some portion of the payment they'd get from the study. They were also asked to rank their embarrassment from 1-7 after the quiz. What they found was that those who'd believed they were answering middle-school level questions, who rated themselves as more embarrassed, decided to switch to another topic after about 22 questions, versus those who were told they were taking an expert-level quiz, who switched after about 30.

The researchers say this indicates that while high expectations can be helpful in motivating people, they can also lead people to tap out as soon as they encounter their first setback. Managers must be ready to support high performers after initial setbacks so they can help them persevere. 

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